Ethos [edit]: Procedural Rhetoric and the Wikipedia Project

Ethos [edit]: Procedural Rhetoric and the Wikipedia Project

Ryan McGrady (North Carolina State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-2663-8.ch007
OnDemand PDF Download:


This chapter examines the credibility of Wikipedia from a rhetorical point of view, using ethos, one of Aristotle’s original modes of persuasion, to assess the community behind the content of the site’s articles. To do so, the author adapts a newer perspective from video game studies, procedural rhetoric (Bogost 2007), to provide a means with which to analyze the site’s community-created rules, which he argues, operates symbiotically with a unified body of editors to shape what the reader sees. By considering Wikipedia within the encyclopedia genre, and by looking beyond the surface content to the archived and easily accessible sets of rules and user data, those who must make decisions about why, how, and to what extent they should use and/or trust the site—or permit it to be used under their purview—may be able to avoid the mire of evaluating constantly evolving pseudonymous documents for factuality.
Chapter Preview


In 2001 Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger launched Wikipedia to act as a testing ground, or sandbox, to supplement Nupedia, their online encyclopedia. Nupedia attempted to create a gift economy in which experts would write articles for a free, open resource that would take advantage of the spatial and temporal advantages of the Web.

Wikipedia exploded with activity, quickly overshadowing and then obsoleting its predecessor. In the years that followed, Wikipedia has grown to be one of the most popular websites in the world, surpassing all other nonprofit organizations, encyclopedias, news sites, educational institutions, and other traditional sources of information. In fact the only names above Wikipedia at the time of writing, as reported by Alexa Internet’s list of most visited websites, are Google, FaceBook, YouTube, Yahoo, and Baidu (“,” 2012). Clearly a special case, Wikipedia has had a dramatic influence not just on popular culture and the Internet, but on the ways in which we think about how knowledge is produced and consumed.

Despite its weight as a cultural force—and, of course, because of it—Wikipedia has also attracted sharp criticism from diverse groups of stakeholders in many sectors of the information economy. Journalists scoff at it as an accurate source, educators ban it outright from classrooms, and late night talk show hosts use it as fodder for their opening monologues. An easy way to indirectly question someone’s claim today has become to ask if he or she “read it on Wikipedia.”

The issue of credibility is central to critical discourse around Wikipedia, as well as to the nature of the site itself. What is an encyclopedia, after all, without trustworthy entries? Certainly the Encyclopaedia Britannica would not have been able to maintain its place as the gold standard for summarized knowledge for so long without the reverence earned through a long history of strict standards for content (Kafker & Loveland, 2009; Kogan, 1958). When the common comparison is made between Britannica and Wikipedia, the former is often treated as truth itself, as if it, unlike Wikipedia, had not been written by real and fallible humans.1

A good deal of research has been conducted about the factual accuracy of the content of Wikipedia’s articles, with mostly positive results (Andrews, 2007; Booth, 2007; Matthews, 2005; Read, 2006; Rosenzweig, 2006). In fact, a 2005 study conducted for Nature (Giles, 2005) found that it was very close in accuracy to Britannica—especially impressive findings considering Wikipedia’s exponentially larger database and ability to rapidly improve (all errors noted in the study were fixed within days of its publication). Useful as these assessments are, they nonetheless conceal, omit, or otherwise marginalize what is both the site’s greatest strength and most glaring weakness: Wikipedia is not static and is not gated; anybody can change almost anything at any time. The text analyzed for a study at one moment could the next day have been improved upon or deleted and replaced with misinformation or random expletives. Edits like the latter (“vandalism”) are typically obvious and quickly removed, but the volatility such changes demonstrate clearly problematizes methods traditionally used to evaluate websites as sources of information, such as those discussed in the next section.

The question then becomes how one might assess the credibility of a dynamic, open access encyclopedia without relying on traditional, empirical evaluations of content. The exigence this creates is clear: Wikipedia is ubiquitous, accessible, and popular, and there are diverse groups of stakeholders in many sectors of the information economy who must make decisions about its use. To err on the side of caution by abstaining or forbidding its use without proper investigation foolishly writes off a tremendous potential for learning from its unquestionably vast stores of information.

Complete Chapter List

Search this Book:
Editorial Advisory Board
Table of Contents
Joyce Walker
Moe Folk, Shawn Apostel
Chapter 1
Todd S. Frobish
This chapter works toward a four-part model of online ethos connecting classical rhetorical theory to the new age of computer-mediated technology... Sample PDF
On Pixels, Perceptions, and Personae: Toward a Model of Online Ethos
Chapter 2
Natasha Dwyer
The design of trust in digital environments shapes how users relate. By reducing complexity, trust expedites transactions, and thus, some developers... Sample PDF
Online Trust: A Moving Target
Chapter 3
Nathan Johnson
This chapter examines how information infrastructure influences ethos in information labor. The primary text is discourse about ACID3, a web page... Sample PDF
Online Credibility and Information Labor: Infrastructure Reverberating through Ethos
Chapter 4
Kevin Brock
The increasing prominence and variety of open source software (OSS) threaten to upset conventional approaches to software development and marketing.... Sample PDF
Establishing Ethos on Proprietary and Open Source Software Websites
Chapter 5
Joe Erickson, Kristine Blair
This chapter argues that online academic journals are not only a legitimate venue and sustainable source of disciplinary inquiry, but an important... Sample PDF
The Ethos of Online Publishing: Building and Sustaining an Inclusive Future for Digital Scholarship
Chapter 6
Veronica Maidel, Dmitry Epstein
Web search has become an integral part of everyday online activity. Existing research on search behavior offers an extensive and detailed account of... Sample PDF
The Query is Just the Beginning: Exploring Search-Related Decision-Making of Young Adults
Chapter 7
Ryan McGrady
This chapter examines the credibility of Wikipedia from a rhetorical point of view, using ethos, one of Aristotle’s original modes of persuasion, to... Sample PDF
Ethos [edit]: Procedural Rhetoric and the Wikipedia Project
Chapter 8
Dirk Lewandowski
Web search engines apply a variety of ranking signals to achieve user satisfaction, i.e., results pages that provide the best-possible results for... Sample PDF
Credibility in Web Search Engines
Chapter 9
Miriam J. Metzger, Andrew J. Flanagin, Ryan Medders, Rebekah Pure, Alex Markov, Ethan Hartsell
The vast amount of information available online makes the origin of information, its quality, and its veracity less clear than ever before, shifting... Sample PDF
The Special Case of Youth and Digital Information Credibility
Chapter 10
Paulo Serra, João Canavilhas
This chapter addresses the use and credibility of news sources 2.0 in journalism. Starting with traditionally established views about the... Sample PDF
The Credibility of Sources 2.0 in Journalism: Case Study in Portugal
Chapter 11
Rick Malleus
This chapter proposes a framework for analyzing the credibility of online news sites, allowing diaspora populations to evaluate the credibility of... Sample PDF
Whose News Can You Trust?: A Framework for Evaluating the Credibility of Online News Sources for Diaspora Populations
Chapter 12
Nicholas Gilewicz, François Allard-Huver
Astroturfing—fake grassroots communications about an issue of public interest—is further problematized in digital space. Because digitally mediated... Sample PDF
Digital Parrhesia as a Counterweight to Astroturfing
Chapter 13
Dawn Emsellem Wichowski, Laura E. Kohl
In this chapter, the authors locate blogs and microblogs such as Facebook and Twitter in the information landscape. They explore their diverse... Sample PDF
Establishing Credibility in the Information Jungle: Blogs, Microblogs, and the CRAAP Test
Chapter 14
Christy Oslund
In the face of increasing use of digitally mediated contexts, teachers and students on all levels are expected to be familiar with creating content... Sample PDF
Building a Professional Ethos on LinkedIn
Chapter 15
Zixue Tai, Yonghua Zhang
Exponential growth in the past decade has turned the Chinese blogosphere into the largest blogging space in the world. Through studying some of the... Sample PDF
Online Identity Formation and Digital Ethos Building in the Chinese Blogosphere
Chapter 16
Misty L. Knight, Richard A. Knight, Abigail Goben, Aaron W. Dobbs
Scholars are increasingly engaging with their peers in synchronous and asynchronous online forums. In order to adapt to this current trend... Sample PDF
Theory and Application: Using Social Networking to Build Online Credibility
Chapter 17
Ceren Sözeri
Mainstream online media is gradually encouraging user contributions to boost brand loyalty and to attract new users; however, former “passive”... Sample PDF
Ethical Challenges for User-Generated Content Publishing: Comparing Public Service Media and Commercial Media
Chapter 18
Samaa Gamie
This chapter examines two key Egyptian Facebook pages that became the voice and face of the youth movement that ignited the Egyptian revolution. The... Sample PDF
The Cyber-Propelled Egyptian Revolution and the De/Construction of Ethos
Chapter 19
Wendi Sierra, Doug Eyman
In this chapter, the authors extend Warnick’s (2007) appropriation of Toulmin’s (1958) “field-dependency” as applied through an ecological lens to... Sample PDF
“I Rolled the Dice with Trade Chat and This is What I Got”: Demonstrating Context-Dependent Credibility in Virtual Worlds
Chapter 20
Documentary at Play  (pages 353-367)
Inge Ejbye Sørensen, Anne Mette Thorhauge
Docu-games designate a versatile group of games that have in common an attempt to depict and reflect on aspects of reality such as military... Sample PDF
Documentary at Play
Chapter 21
Dan W. Lawrence
The purpose of this chapter is to investigate the intersection where digital media studies meet rhetoric and rhetoric is re-introduced to... Sample PDF
Press C→ to Play the Ocarina: Rhetoric and Game Music
About the Contributors